Sunday, February 18, 2018

Episode 032: The Battle of Golden Hill

Boston seemed to be the hotbed for colonial resistance in the years leading up to war.  In and around Boston is where most of the major conflicts occurred and where the shooting war eventually began.  But radical sentiment spread beyond New England.

I continue to call the movement opposing British Tax laws “radicals” because at the time, they probably were a relatively small radical faction within the colonial population.  The term the people used at the time to describe themselves was usually “whig.” Later, the term “patriot” comes into fashion to describe these people.  But that term does not seem to be used to describe those opposing British tax policies until around 1773.

New York Politics

Some colonies had more radicals than others, but there were Sons of Liberty chapters in all the colonies.  New York colony had a pretty conservative government, but also had a large radical faction, primarily in New York City.

New York also had to deal with a British troop presence.  Although troops had been in New York much longer, clashes between the local Sons of Liberty and the soldiers grew increasingly violent.  North American Military Commander Thomas Gage had moved several regiments of regulars to New York from Canada a few years earlier, greatly increasing the number of soldiers in the colony.  New Yorkers did not want them around, and certainly did not want to pay for their upkeep.  You may recall back in Episode 25, I discussed New York’s refusal in 1766 to authorize tax funds for the soldiers, leading to Parliament’s attempt to suspend legislative authority for New York’s assembly until it raised the money.  New York had come up with the money since them, but it was always contentious.  In late 1769, the fight over British regulars quartered in New York increased in intensity.

In December 1769, the assembly authorized a new tax to pay for the soldiers which upset both sides.  The British military thought the funds insufficient to support the troops.  Most New Yorkers were upset about having to pay more money to support a presence they did not want in the first place.

Since I haven’t discussed New York politics much so far, I thought now might be a good time to introduce some of the key players.

Cadwallader Colden

Cadwallader Colden was an old man by the time period I’ll be talking about today.  Born in 1688, he was in his eighties during his stint as acting Governor of New York from 1769-1770.  He had been born in Ireland to Scottish parents and went to Edinborough to study to become a minister.  By the time he finished, his interest had turned to science and medicine which he studied in London.  He then moved to Philadelphia to start a medical practice, but after a few years, moved to New York where he would spend the rest of his life.

Cadwalader Colden
(from Wikimedia)
Colden must have had good political connections in New York since he received an appointment as Surveyor General and joined the Provincial Council the first year he was there.  He spent a life active with many interests, including a correspondence with Benjamin Franklin on scientific issues, and writing a book on the Iroquois Confederacy after serving as the colony’s representative to the Five Nations.

In 1760 on the death of James DeLancey, father of the man I’m going to discuss next, Colden received an appointment at Lieutenant Governor.  He would serve as acting governor on at least three different occasions.  As a representative of the Crown, Colden was not always popular.  Stamp Act protesters had carried an effigy of him during a protest march on November 1, 1765, the day the Stamp Act was supposed to take effect.  Protesters also stole his coach and burned it.  Colden had most recently incurred the wrath of the Sons of Liberty by demanding the colonial assembly pay for funds required under the Quartering Act to support regulars stationed in the colony.

James DeLancey

James DeLancey (sometimes spelled De Lancey) came from one of New York’s most prominent families.  His father, of the same name, had been Lieutenant Governor, and for several years, acting Governor of New York.  James was born in New York City but spent many of his formative years in England going to boarding school.  He studied law at Cambridge before returning to New York as an adult.

James De Lancey
Just about the same time he returned to the colonies, the French and Indian War broke out.  DeLancey served as a militia captain, seeing combat on several occasions.  He resigned his commission and returned home in 1760, after the death of his father.  DeLancey then became one of the wealthiest men in the colony, running his family’s merchant trading company and also engaged in land speculation.

His father’s political influence left DeLancey with control of a powerful political party that controlled the colony.  His main rival was the Livingston family.  DeLancey was a conservative, but as with just about everyone else in the colonies, he strongly opposed the Stamp Act, leading New York’s opposition.  Like most wealthy merchants, he objected to the rioting and destruction of property, but his support of protests and non-importation agreements maintained his popularity with most New Yorkers.

Despite his opposition to British taxes, though, he was a moderate and a wealthy member of the establishment.  When the British made clear that New York would have to pay costs under the Quartering Act, and Gov. Coldon called on the New York Assembly to act, DeLancey led the fight in the Assembly to implement a tax that would cover the costs of quartering British regulars.  This drew the wrath of some of the more radical elements of New York politics.  Even so, most people saw DeLancey as a supporter of colonial rights before the outbreak of war.  That would change over time as DeLancy would eventually have to flee New York for his loyalist sentiments.

Isaac Sears

Isaac Sears was born in Massachusetts and raised in Connecticut.  At the age of 16, he took a job on a ship and within a few years was serving as captain of merchant vessel.  He commanded a privateer vessel during the French and Indian War but lost his ship in 1761.  After the war, he settled in New York City, running a fairly successful merchant trading company.  He lived in a mansion on Broadway and settled into a comfortable life.  Over time, he became involved in political issues, particularly those involving trade.

In some ways, Sears became the Samuel Adams of New York.  After the Stamp Act, he helped found the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty, joined in Committees of Correspondence, and helped organize the New York protests against British taxes.  As a respected and prosperous merchant, he could socialize with other elite merchants and city leaders, but was also comfortable in working class circles, allowing him influence over much of the city’s working population.  Politically, at least at this time, he had aligned himself with DeLancey.  That said, the two men had disagreed and fought over the Quartering Act funding in 1769.

Alexander Mcdougall

Another important Son of Liberty was Alexander McDougall (sometimes spelled MacDougall).  He came to New York as a child when his family moved from Scotland.  His family came as part of a large group that had planned to settle in upstate New York.  The guy who organized the immigration, however, tried to force all of the members of the group to become tenant farmers on his land.  These immigrants did not sell everything to escape being tenant farmers in Scotland to become tenant farmers in America.  They wanted to be land owners. The whole land scheme is an interesting topic in itself, but not one I can cover here.  Several aristocrats attempted to recreate the tenant farming system that greatly profited the aristocracy in Europe.  But land in America was simply too available and cheap to force commoners into such an exploitative position.  The whole scheme fell apart.  McDougall’s father ended up abandoning that plan and began work delivering milk for a dairy farmer on Manhattan.

Alexander McDougall
(from findagrave)
At age 14, McDougall signed onto a merchant vessel and began a life a sea.  He captained two small privateer vessels during the French and Indian War.  He amassed a small fortune through these efforts.  When his wife died in 1763, he gave up his life at sea to raise his three children.  He began working as a merchant in New  York, and began to get involved in politics.  Having some property gave McDougall entry into politics, but he was uneducated and had the manners of a commoner, which would keep him out of any elite circles.

He joined the Sons of liberty and was active in New York protests.  In December 1769, McDougall wrote a broadside entitled To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York, which attacked the colonial assembly and De Lancey specifically for caving on providing Quartering Act funds to house British soldiers in the colony.  Eventually, MaDougall would go to jail for this publication, convicted of seditious libel.  This would only greatly increase his reputation among the radicals in the colonies.  Some called him the Wilkes of America.  His controversial writing was circulating among New Yorkers, and MacDougall was still free and walking the streets as the incidents below unfolded in January 1770.

The Liberty Pole

During this era, many towns in the colonies had erected liberty poles to celebrate victories in the protection of their rights.  Many say the practice of a liberty pole dates back to Roman times when the assassins of Caesar erected a small pole with the cap of a freed slave on it to symbolize how they had freed Rome from the tyranny of slavery.  The poles also bear a similarity to victory columns that many European cities and towns installed after winning great military victories, or some other memorable event.

New Yorkers had erected the first Liberty Pole on June 4, 1766 in honor of the King’s birthday and also to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act.  It was not meant to be a symbol of rebellion.  Rather, it was a celebration of the fact that the government in London had acted to protect colonial liberties.  The pole bore the inscription: “King, Pitt, and Liberty.”  But the pole became a focal point for radical whigs to hold rallies.  When New York refused to come up with money to house British soldiers under the Quartering Act that year, soldiers in the city cut down the pole in August.

New Yorkers erected a second pole within days, and again soldiers almost immediately cut it down. The acts of destruction, on top of raw feelings over the Quartering Act dispute, raised tensions.  But the Governor permitted New Yorkers to erect a third pole in September, and gave strict instructions to the soldiers not to mess with it.  That one lasted about six months.

NYC Liberty Pole, 1770 (from Wikipedia)
In March 1767, colonists gathered at the pole to celebrate the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act.  Following the celebration, the soldiers once again cut down the pole overnight.  The Sons of Liberty erected a fourth pole the following day.  This one had iron bands around the lower part of the pole to prevent anyone from cutting through the wood.  Soldiers attempted to destroy this pole as well, but the iron bands along with the vigilance of the Sons of Liberty to protect it, prevented any more successful vandalism.  The pole remained in place for nearly three years.

In December 1769, New York allocated a mere £1800 for the quartering of troops, far too little for adequate housing.  Once again angry soldiers decided to take out their frustrations on the pole.

On January 13, 1770, a group of soldiers attempted to tear down the Liberty Pole in New York.  This was actually the fourth Liberty Pole in New York.  Because the iron bands prevented them from cutting the pole, the soldiers drilled a hole, filled it with gunpowder and attempted to blow it up.  A passerby saw the soldiers messing with the pole and alerted others in nearby Montayne’s Tavern, which served as the unofficial NY headquarters of the Sons of Liberty.  Men from the tavern ran to the pole and confronted the soldiers.

One soldier held them at bayonet point as the others attempted to finish their attempt to destroy the pole.  The explosion did not work.  The fuse did not ignite the powder they had put inside the pole. The frustrated soldiers then invaded the Tavern. They held everyone at bayonet point as they destroyed the tavern and beat up a waiter.

Defense of Liberty Pole, 1770 (artist's conception 1879)
(from Richland Source)
On the night of January 16-17, a group succeeded destroying the pole.  They managed to ignite the powder in the pole, explode it, and knock it down.  Then they chopped up the pole, leaving the pieces in front of Montayne’s Tavern.  In response, the New York Sons of Liberty issued two resolves.  The first said that no soldier would be hired for any work in the city.  The second said that any armed soldiers found armed after dark and not on duty would be treated as criminals.

Soldiers, who were poorly paid, often did odd jobs around town to earn extra cash.  Essentially the sons were calling for a boycott on hiring any soldiers in order to make them feel more unwelcome.  The treatment of armed soldiers as criminals would almost certainly lead to violence.  Remember, the NYPD did not exist in 1770.  Civilians helped to make arrests when the Sheriff needed help.  A civilian could forcibly take a criminal to authorities for arrest.  Civilians attempting to subdue armed soldiers at night seems like a recipe for violence.

The Battle

A few days later, on January 19, the soldiers began posting handbills denying responsibility for the destruction of the pole, but also mocking the Sons of Liberty. Isaac Sears, and a group of men grabbed two of the soldiers while they were posting the bills.  The mob dragged the soldiers the Mayor’s House to lodge a complaint.  Other soldiers with them rushed to get reinforcements.

Twenty armed soldiers soon arrived on the scene, but were still far outnumbered by the growing mob.  Sears had already gotten the two soldiers taken into custody into the Mayor’s house. Their comrades threatened to storm the home and remove them force.  They had swords drawn and bayonets fixed, clearly ready for a fight. A militia Captain named Richardson ordered them to stop and to return to their barracks.  He told them the matter would be resolved peacefully by the Mayor.

Battle of Golden Hill (artist conception 1920)
(from Journal of the American Revolution)
After a short confrontation, the soldiers began marching back to their barracks.  Much of the mob followed them.  At some point another group of soldiers joined with those retreating, thus increasing their numbers.  Yet another group of soldiers moved behind the mob, effectively surrounding them.

As the soldiers reached the top of Golden Hill, they decided they had sufficient numbers and had taken enough abuse.  With swords drawn and bayonets fixed, they attempted to force their way back through the mob, wounding dozens of people.  Many in the mob fought back, wounding several of the soldiers.  Accounts of the fighting differ greatly depending on who was doing the writing.  The Sons of Liberty portrayed the fight as out of control officers slashing at civilians, even those just standing around and not part of the mob.  The Loyalist press painted a picture of soldiers defending themselves against a riotous mob.  Later, people referred to the fight as the battle of Golden Hill.

Golden Hill was a location in what is today lower Manhattan, around the corner of John and William Streets.  If you happen to be familiar with the area, you might note there is no hill there.  It is pretty flat.  That is because in the 19th Century, New York flattened out most of the area, leveling hills and filling in gullies, to make the city flatter and easier to travel.  So while there is no hill there now, it was there in 1770.

The fight resulted in quite a few injuries but no one was killed.  One newspaper reported a death a few days later, but this appears to be an error.  If anyone had died, the Sons of Liberty would have held him up as a martyr to the cause.  Several people though, did suffer serious bayonet and sword wounds.

Battle of Golden Hill, 1770
drawn 1884 (from Wikimedia)
British officers arrived, forcing the soldiers to stand down, while civilian leaders were able to contain the civilian mob. Over the next few days, fighting broke out several more times between soldiers and civilians, resulting in a few more injuries.

There do not seem to have been any trials or other legal consequences resulting from the battle, which probably involved around 100 soldiers and a mob of about 3000 civilians.  Newspapers hyped the story over the next few weeks, and word of the incident spread across the continent.

The Sons of LIberty attempted to erect a fifth Liberty Pole on the same site.  They Mayor, however, denied them a permit.  Instead they erected the new pole on private property nearby, which Sears owned.  The new one was even bigger, 80 feet tall, with metal bands covering the lower two-thirds of the pole.  The new pole would remain in place until British troops invaded the city in 1776.  Unlike the first pole, which celebrated the King, this one simply said “Liberty and Property.”

Next Week, another deadlier clash between civilians and soldiers takes place in what becomes known as the Boston Massacre.

Next Episode 33: The Boston Massacre

Previous Episode 31: Wilkes and Liberty & Tar and Feathers

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web Sites

Cadwallader Colden:

Isaac Sears:

Alexander MacDougall:

Minty, Christopher F. The Importance of Partisanship in New York City, ca. 1769–1775:

Collins, Charles Fredrick “The Artisans' Battle Against Political Subordination in Colonial New York City” UCLA Historical Journal, 1981 (PDF):

The Liberty Pole Struggle and Riot 1766-1776:

Ruppert, Bob “The Battle of Golden Hill - Six Weeks Before The Boston Massacre” Journal of the American Revolution, 2014:

The Lost Plaque of the Battle of Golden Hill:

Bell, J.L. “The Non-Fatal Battle of Golden Hill” Boston 1775 Blog, 2013:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Keys, Alice Mapelsden Cadwallader Colden; a representative eighteenth century official, New York: Columbia Press, 1906.

Dawson, Henry B. The Sons of Liberty in New York, Poughkeepsie: Platt & Schram, 1859

Stevens, John Austin Colonial New York; sketches biographical and historical, 1768-1784, New York: John F. Trow & Co., 1867

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Carp, Benjamin L. Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Champagne, Roger J. Alexander McDougall and the American Revolution in New York, Union College Press, 1975.

Ketchum, Richard M. Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2002

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1975.

Macdougall, William American Revolutionary: A Biography of General Alexander McDougall, Westport: Praeger, 1977.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. I, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. 1976.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).

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